Space Nerds

When troops need satel­lite info in a hurry, they con­tact the 117th.

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Viewport - BY ED DARACK

Some­times a soldier’s best friend is an IT guy with a satel­lite dish.

In May 2013, af­ter amass­ing ev­i­dence against the pi­rates, NCIS per­son­nel needed up-to-date satel­lite im­agery of the ships, pro­vid­ing enough de­tail to clearly iden­tify them and their ex­act po­si­tions. But the im­agery had to be taken from un­clas­si­fied sys­tems so that dur­ing a fu­ture crim­i­nal trial, pros­e­cu­tors could show the pho­to­graphs to those with­out se­cu­rity clear­ances.

Un­able to task the top-se­cret satel­lites of the U.S. Na­tional Re­con­nais­sance Of­fice, NCIS per­son­nel con­tacted a seven-per­son team of spe­cial­ists who pro­vided the in­ves­ti­ga­tors ex­actly what they needed. Given a roughly-60-square-mile area of the In­dian Ocean where NCIS be­lieved the pi­rates may have an­chored the ships, the team re­quested im­agery from the World­view-1 com­mer­cial satel­lite, op­er­ated by Colorado-based Digitalglobe. “We were lucky to get sev­eral clear im­ages free from fog, clouds, and weather, and started look­ing for any­thing that could pos­si­bly be the tar­get,” ex­plains team mem­ber John Colin. With a

FOR TWO YEARS, be­gin­ning in 2011, the U.S. Naval Crim­i­nal In­ves­tiga­tive Ser­vice (NCIS) had been build­ing a case against a group of So­mali pi­rates op­er­at­ing in the western In­dian Ocean. Just off the coast of So­ma­lia, the group held two ves­sels: the Albedo, a 520-foot con­tainer ship they took cap­tive in Novem­ber 2010, and the Na­ham 3, a 160-foot fish­ing ship they com­man­deered in March 2012. De­mand­ing mil­lions in ran­som, they held dozens of the ships’ crew mem­bers hostage, starv­ing, tor­tur­ing, and in some cases killing them.

res­o­lu­tion of 0.5 me­ter (at just un­der 20 inches, the high­est the U.S. gov­ern­ment al­lowed at the time for com­mer­cial im­agery), Colin and Amanda Gib­son, another team mem­ber, scanned the re­cent black-and-white im­ages. Three faint white pix­els caught Gib­son’s eye, and she zoomed in on them. “We found the boat!” Gib­son said. The im­ages re­vealed not only the Albedo but also the Na­ham 3, teth­ered with a moor­ing line to the larger con­tainer ship. The team passed the dig­i­tal im­age files and ge­o­graphic in­for­ma­tion to NCIS. “It took us just three hours!” says Colin of the satel­lite-based search.

Sta­tioned at Naval Sup­port Ac­tiv­ity Bahrain, a U.S. Navy base in Manama, Bahrain, from May 2013 to Jan­uary 2014, the team wasn’t part of the U.S. gov­ern­ment’s in­tel­li­gence agen­cies, nor any spe­cial oper­a­tions group. Colin, a lieu­tenant, and Gib­son, a sergeant, were mem­bers of a one-of-a-kind unit in the U.S. mil­i­tary: the 117th Space Bat­tal­ion of the Colorado Army Na­tional Guard.

Un­like an Air Force squadron, a Marine Corps bat­tal­ion, or an Army reg­i­ment, the 117th ex­ists not for a sin­gle com­bat role or group of re­lated roles but to pro­vide the var­i­ous ca­pa­bil­i­ties of space-based as­sets—from com­mu­ni­ca­tion to imag­ing. Lieu­tenant Colonel Martin Bor­to­lutti, who was the 117th’s com­mand­ing of­fi­cer when the op­er­a­tion to lo­cate the pi­rates took place, ex­plains that “Army space ca­pa­bil­ity” in­cludes space­based as­sets not nec­es­sar­ily owned by the U.S. Army. “We can use those of other par­ties and agen­cies,” he says, in­clud­ing im­agery from com­mer­cial satel­lites, like Digitalglobe’s World­view-1. Each of the team has a spe­cific job, from geospa­tial engi­neer to com­puter net­work spe­cial­ist.

Dur­ing their 2013-2014 tour, the 117th’s Com­mer­cial Im­agery

Team, des­ig­nated CIT 4, stayed busy. “Our mis­sion was to sup­port all of United States Cen­tral Com­mand [a mil­i­tary oper­a­tions area span­ning 4.6 mil­lion square miles and com­pris­ing 20 na­tions, in­clud­ing nearly all of the Mid­dle East] with com­mer­cial satel­lite im­agery,” says Ma­jor Ben Howe, CIT 4’s team leader for that de­ploy­ment. “A big ad­van­tage of com­mer­cial im­agery is that it is un­clas­si­fied and sharable with other gov­ern­ment agen­cies, civil­ians, and host na­tions.” He notes that for most mis­sions, half-me­ter res­o­lu­tion, although far bested by top-se­cret sur­veil­lance and re­con­nais­sance satel­lites op­er­ated by the United States, is al­most al­ways suf­fi­cient.

Another mis­sion had CIT 4 look­ing at ev­ery oil plat­form in the Per­sian Gulf to de­ter­mine which, if any, were op­er­at­ing il­le­gally, a re­quest made by the six-na­tion Gulf Co­op­er­a­tion Coun­cil. The team first un­der­took a broad search, one that wouldn’t be suit­able for the World­view-1 satel­lite. “That’s like look­ing through a soda straw to­ward the ground and wa­ter; it would take an un­ten­able num­ber of im­ages to cover the en­tire gulf,” says Howe. For the ini­tial sur­vey, CIT 4 worked with the Na­tional Geospa­tial-in­tel­li­gence Agency, which, among other tasks, pro­cures com­mer­cial, un­clas­si­fied im­agery for the U.S. mil­i­tary. Through the NGA, the team tasked a com­mer­cial syn­thetic aper­ture radar satel­lite to scan the Per­sian Gulf, the first time the whole body of wa­ter was scanned. Once they’d mapped the oil plat­forms, the team em­ployed the World­view-1 to view each one up close.

The scan showed some­thing the team hadn’t been look­ing for: that the Ira­nian gov­ern­ment had ex­tended a run­way for its mil­i­tary air­craft and had con­structed a num­ber of bunkers on the is­land of Abu Musa, which sits at a crit­i­cal point along the Strait of Hor­muz. The 117th’s work also proved crit­i­cal for the con­struc­tion of a clean wa­ter pro­ject in Ye­men; the im­agery they pro­vided helped lo­cate po­ten­tial wells. The unit cre­ated an up-to-date se­ries of de­tailed maps of the So­mali coast for the French navy, and af­ter a bomb­ing, quickly pro­vided time-crit­i­cal im­agery of the area sur­round­ing the U.S. Em­bassy at Bani Jamra, Bahrain.

Although com­mer­cially sourced, some of CIT 4’s prod­ucts are used for clas­si­fied pur­poses. Howe re­called the work CIT 4 per­formed for the Nel­son Man­dela fu­neral pro­ces­sion in De­cem­ber 2013: “I was talk­ing with an ex­tremely high-level Army staff mem­ber who was not go­ing to be us­ing the im­agery di­rectly. He was go­ing to be giv­ing it to some­one else. And I didn’t ask or even spec­u­late just who that was. That’s not my job.”

I won­dered out loud if the high vis­i­bil­ity of the fu­neral made the pro­ces­sion a tempt­ing tar­get for ter­ror­ists, and hence cre­ated an in­ter­na­tional in­ter­est in plac­ing coun­tert­er­ror­ism units, such as those of the U.S. Army Spe­cial Forces or Navy SEALS, along the route.

Howe stared blankly and waited for a ques­tion he could an­swer.

In ad­di­tion to the CITS, the 117th de­ploys teams that typ­i­cally work with se­cret and top-se­cret space-based as­sets to sup­port

de­ployed U.S. mil­i­tary units. Called Army Space Sup­port Teams, these groups as­sist troops in a num­ber of ways. They pro­vide ac­cu­rate, highly de­tailed, lam­i­nated fold­ing maps for field use. They mon­i­tor the mil­i­tary’s global po­si­tion­ing sys­tem to ad­vise on its re­li­a­bil­ity. Sergeant Jules Tal­lant, a geospa­tial engi­neer in the 117th who de­ployed to Afghanistan in 2012-2013, ex­plains that GPS satel­lites’ ge­om­e­try is con­stantly chang­ing, so the ef­fi­cacy of the sys­tem for any lo­ca­tion con­stantly changes. “We know where all the satel­lites will be at any time, so we can give a 24- or 48-hour model,” she says. “Oper­a­tions plan­ners can know that if the GPS isn’t go­ing to be so great, maybe they don’t want to drop JDAMS [Gps-guided bombs].”

Tal­lant’s team also pro­vided the Marines with a con­tin­u­ously op­er­at­ing sys­tem warn­ing of a threat many might find sur­pris­ing: in­com­ing bal­lis­tic mis­siles. Na­tions such as China, Rus­sia, and North Korea may not have all their mis­siles aimed at the United States; they may have at least some aimed where U.S. forces are massed, like the Marines in Afghanistan.

Be­cause the Marine Corps does not pos­sess its own ded­i­cated space units, the 117th has been sup­port­ing Marines in Afghanistan and Iraq con­tin­u­ously over the past 10 years. “We’re one of the most fre­quently de­ployed Na­tional Guard units in the con­text of or­ga­nized units for a full-tour, boot­son-the-ground, com­bat theater de­ploy­ment,” says Lieu­tenant Colonel Bor­to­lutti.

In ad­di­tion to di­rectly sup­port­ing U.S. and coali­tion forces, the teams train oth­ers in us­ing un­clas­si­fied space as­sets. They’ve trained Afghan forces to cre­ate maps and other im­agery prod­ucts for se­cu­rity and com­bat oper­a­tions so the na­tion will have these skills af­ter Amer­i­cans leave. Cap­tain Jeff Wil­son, a mem­ber of CIT 4, spent nearly 150 days trav­el­ing through­out five coun­tries train­ing lo­cal forces, in­clud­ing those of Iraq and Afghanistan, in us­ing com­mer­cial im­agery.

Be­cause the 117th is a Na­tional Guard unit, specif­i­cally a Colorado unit, its mem­bers also pro­vide ex­per­tise for do­mes­tic oper­a­tions, in­clud­ing dis­as­ter re­lief, re­cov­ery, and emer­gency re­sponse plan­ning. The 117th sent teams to help with the 2013 West Fork wild­fires as well as flood­ing within the state.

Re­gard­less of how it’s de­ployed, the 117th has a van­tage use­ful to any com­bat­ant. “Space is the new high ground,” says Tal­lant, a ref­er­ence to the cen­turies-old ax­iom that to win a con­flict—be it against a hu­man or ad­ver­sary or na­ture—a force fights best from above.

In a word that isn’t even a word: F-4. Re­tired Marine Corps Gen­eral Jack Dai­ley, the di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Air and Space Mu­seum, flew the F-8 in the mid-1960s. “Ev­ery­body who flew that air­plane loved it,” he says. “It was a sin­gle-seater, the way fighter pilots thought a fighter was sup­posed to be.” But upon Dai­ley’s ar­rival in Viet­nam, he was as­signed to an RF-4. He says the Cru­sader missed its war: It was too late for Korea, and by the time the Viet­nam con­flict got go­ing, U.S. naval avi­a­tion was al­ready well into its tran­si­tion to the twin-en­gine, multi-role F-4 Phan­tom (see “Any Mis­sion at Mach 2,” Feb./mar. 2015).

With a top speed of Mach 2.2, the F-4 could in­ter­cept air­borne threats to the fleet faster and far­ther from the ships than the Cru­sader could, and it had the abil­ity to fire at an en­emy head on. Also, that sec­ond en­gine gave the F-4 bet­ter sur­viv­abil­ity— crit­i­cal for pilots fly­ing in com­bat and over wide stretches of ocean.

Of course, the F-8 still had some­thing F-4 pilots des­per­ately wanted but didn’t get for sev­eral years: guns. Four of them, fir­ing 20mm rounds.

“There was this strange idea in the Depart­ment of De­fense that the gun was passé,” says mil­i­tary avi­a­tion his­to­rian Richard P. Hal­lion. “And the gun has never been passé.” Com­pared to the mis­siles of to­day, he says, the air-to-air mis­siles arm­ing F-4s and F-8s dur­ing Viet­nam were prim­i­tive and un­re­li­able.

Peter Mer­sky, the au­thor of the Viet­nam War, says that even though only two of the Cru­sader’s 19 MIG kills in Viet­nam were made

“THE LAST OF THE GUN­FIGHT­ERS” sounds like a Gary Cooper movie or a Zane Grey novel. But the top re­sult in a Google search for that phrase is the Wikipedia page for a six-decade-old jet fighter, the Vought F-8 Cru­sader. Adopted by the U.S. Navy in 1957, this sin­gle-en­gine, 1,000-mph dog­fighter downed 19 Migs dur­ing the Viet­nam War and was an ac­cu­rate, deadly strafer. Yet de­spite its ser­vice record, speed, and recog­ni­tion for ex­cel­lence—it won the 1956 Col­lier Tro­phy—the Cru­sader has fallen into ob­scu­rity. Why?

F-8 Cru­sader Units of

solely with guns, the F-8’s cannon were more than just a con­fi­dence booster for pilots. “The two of­fi­cial F-8 gun kills have since been aug­mented by other un­of­fi­cially cred­ited kills that used a com­bi­na­tion of 20mm fire and a well-placed Sidewinder hit,” Mer­sky says.

The sin­gle-en­gine, sin­gle-seat F-8—orig­i­nally the F8U-1 un­der the old Navy num­ber­ing sys­tem—was one of sev­eral air­craft born of the lessons of Korea, ac­cord­ing to Hal­lion.

For­mer Sen­a­tor John Glenn flew the F-8 as a U.S. Marine Corps ma­jor and test pi­lot at the naval air base at Patux­ent River, Mary­land, in the mid-1950s, and was an im­me­di­ate fan. “I’d like to think what I could have done had I had it in Korea when we were fly­ing against the Migs, com­pared to the F-86s,” he says. “With four 20mm can­nons, it would have been bet­ter armed than the MIG. In dog­fights I don’t know that it would have been much bet­ter in abil­ity to turn, but it would have been bet­ter at con­trol­ling the bat­tle be­cause it could go higher and faster.”

The higher, faster F-8 was the Navy’s an­swer to the Air Force’s su­per­sonic air su­pe­ri­or­ity stud, the F-100 Su­per Sabre. You could al­most hear Vought lead engi­neer Rus­sell Clark and the rest of the de­sign team say “Oh yeah?” on March 25, 1955, when test pi­lot John Kon­rad took the pro­to­type, XF8-U, su­per­sonic on its first flight. The fol­low­ing year, Navy test pi­lot R.W. “Duke” Wind­sor took the Cru­sader to 1,015 mph, a na­tional speed record and an achieve­ment that took the post­war Thompson Tro­phy away from the F-100.

Glenn, who was in charge of F-8 ar­ma­ment test­ing, re­calls early prob­lems with the can­nons mounted on the side of the en­gine duct at the front of the air­craft. “When we fired the gun on the ground at a tar­get it did okay, but when we did a two-sec­ond burst-fire with all four guns, the duct would flex and you had a big cir­cu­lar ran­dom pat­tern.” Vought beefed up the duct for later air­craft, but the ini­tial so­lu­tion was to send a cross-eyed air­plane to the fleet. Glenn says, “To make up for that flex­ing we [made it] so when you looked down the bore­sight on the ground it was cross-eyed to the other side. We [ad­justed the bore­sight by tak­ing] the av­er­age of how far they were off-tar­get when we did the two-sec­ond burst-fire.”

In 1957, Glenn fa­mously com­pleted Pro­ject Bullet, briefly steal­ing the transcon­ti­nen­tal speed record back from the Air Force by fly­ing an F-8 non­stop coast to coast in afterburner the en­tire trip, ex­cept dur­ing the three aerial re­fu­el­ings re­quired.

Slow­ing the first fighter ca­pa­ble of fly­ing faster than 1,000 mph to a safe speed for land­ing on a

strut served as a reser­voir for hy­draulic fluid, so if you lost the land­ing gear and got air­borne again, you had to go to the backup ram air tur­bine [to keep your flight con­trols work­ing]. Try­ing to land with a bro­ken land­ing gear was not re­ally de­sir­able.”

Miot­tel had a tail­hook mal­func­tion dur­ing land­ing, fly­ing his dis­abled F-8 into a bar­ri­cade erected on the flight deck. He de­scribes the bar­ri­cade as a “heavy-duty 20-foot-high ten­nis net” and the air­craft as a “multi-ton ten­nis ball on a 150-mph bad serve.” Ev­ery­thing went fine un­til the bar­ri­cade tore off his left land­ing gear; the air­craft piv­oted on its left wingtip and headed off the port side of the car­rier. Miot­tel man­aged to jet­ti­son his canopy and yank a han­dle that re­leased him from the ejec­tion seat as he plunged into the wa­ter, and he jokes, “The old avi­a­tors’ maxim that ‘Any land­ing you can walk away from is a good land­ing’ was amended to in­cor­po­rate the words ‘or swim.’ ”

Rear Ad­mi­ral Bob Shu­maker (ret.) also had an ad­ven­ture in­volv­ing a re­cal­ci­trant tail­hook and a

( night land­ing dur­ing a Mediter­ranean cruise on the Saratoga in 1960. Af­ter mak­ing three land­ing at­tempts with a tail­hook that wouldn’t come down, he says, “they told me to head to Italy, but I didn’t have enough fuel so they said to join the tanker. I found the tanker and my heart was beat­ing a lit­tle faster by then and the tanker said, ‘I’m flip­ping ev­ery switch in here but I can’t get the hose to come out.’ That was strike num­ber two.”

For strike num­ber three, Saratoga’s flight deck bar­ri­cade wouldn’t de­ploy. Shu­maker was run­ning out of op­tions: “I was down to 200 pounds of fuel. I climbed to 3,000 feet and punched out and strike num­ber four was the para­chute didn’t open…. I pulled the D-ring to man­u­ally de­ploy the chute and noth­ing hap­pened, but pulled harder and it fi­nally opened.” A nearby de­stroyer picked him up and in­glo­ri­ously re­turned him to the car­rier.

F-8 oper­a­tions could be scary for the ground crew as well. John Borry, a plane cap­tain and jet me­chanic with VF-13 aboard Shangri La, didn’t like crawl­ing down the en­gine in­take. “That’s a good 20 feet long on the in­side,” he says. “Some­times some­one would stand be­hind the air­plane and start whistling through the tailpipe like the en­gine was start­ing and you’d scram­ble out of there real quick!”

The F-8’s gi­ant air in­take earned it another nick­name: Ga­tor. “That in­take is down so low you couldn’t walk any­where near the front of the air­plane,” says Borry. “One day another guy got too close and it started to suck him in, but I grabbed his an­kles and sig­naled the pi­lot to shut the en­gine down.”

Still, me­chan­ics loved the F-8. Jay Pow­el­son re­mem­bers his fa­vorite job was en­gine runs: “Noth­ing can com­pare to an F-8 afterburner shot be­cause it just jars the whole air­plane and you hope the chain is go­ing to hold.” The afterburner on the F-8 was an all-or-noth­ing af­fair, un­like the staged af­ter­burn­ers on newer air­craft. When F-8s ar­rived on the Con­stel­la­tion to the care of plane cap­tains and me­chan­ics who had worked only around F-4s, says Pow­el­son, “Four or five guys hit the deck when the F-8 lit the afterburner. They thought some­thing had blown up.”

Louis Ze­zoff, a main­tainer on the Coral Sea in 1961-1962, re­mem­bers watch­ing the air­craft ma­neu­ver: “There wasn’t a lot of rules and reg­u­la­tions back then…. The pilots taught them­selves. The pilots couldn’t wait to get in the seat and fly off the car­rier.

Eu­gene Chancy got the first MIG kill with a gun. All three pilots were in fighter squadron VF-211. Marr de­scribed his MIG en­gage­ment in Mer­sky’s

Fly­ing with Vam­patella on his wing, “We pull hard into them and the fight’s on,” he re­calls. “Two Migs split off, and we pass the other head on.” Af­ter miss­ing twice with his cannon, he was 1,000 feet above the MIG when he tried fir­ing a Sidewinder, “but the mis­sile can’t hack it and falls to the ground. The MIG has been in ’burner for four or five min­utes now and is mighty low on fuel, so he rolls and heads straight for his base. I roll in be­hind, stuff it in ’burner, and close at 500 knots. At a half-mile, I fire my last ’Win­der, and it chops off his tail and star­board wing.”

Marr’s kill was a typ­i­cal F-8 en­gage­ment: The air­craft was a true dog­fighter from the rear. Again, the F-8 had to be within vis­ual range to en­gage, un­like the newer F-4, which could en­gage the en­emy from longer ranges with its radar-beam-fol­low­ing Spar­row mis­siles. In ad­di­tion, the F-4 re­quired two crew mem­bers. Mer­sky says that Vought mar­keters dreamed up “Last of the Gun­fight­ers” when they learned of the F-4’s lack of in­ter­nal gun and its twocrew con­cept, and fleet pilots quickly picked up the name and de­vel­oped a friendly ri­valry with their F-4 coun­ter­parts.

Although both Air Force and Navy F-4s were even­tu­ally equipped with guns, the nick­name stuck. By the end of Viet­nam, F-8 pilots claimed the high­est kill ra­tio of any air­craft of the war: 19 Migs downed to only three F-8 losses.

Of course, those sta­tis­tics also re­flected the rel­a­tively low num­bers of F-8s in the fight. “F-8 pilots, although ready and able, did not see as many Migs through­out the war as their F-4 com­pa­tri­ots,” Mer­sky

F-8 Cru­sader Units of the Viet­nam War.

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